Film / The Last Temptation of Christ

This is the 1988 film directed by Martin Scorsese, with a screenplay by Paul Schrader, adapted from the 1953 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. Starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus, what follows is a loose reinterpretation of the Biblical story of Jesus' life and Crucifixion (sorry, at 2 hours and 43 minutes the film's already long enough without him coming back).

As stated earlier, the film/novel depart substantially from The Four Gospels' account of Jesus' life. First to come to mind is that Jesus, while still capable of miracle working, is a fallen and deeply flawed human being, who disrespects his mother, watches prostitutes have sex, and wants to be abandoned by God. Secondly, Judas isn't that bad of a guy. Instead of outright betraying Jesus, he's practically forced into it by the man himself. Because of these deviations, the film ends up using many tropes of Jesus movies while Playing With them in new and rather un-Christian ways.

Released at a time when conservative Christians in America were eager to re-assert themselves as a cultural force after the embarrassing televangelist scandals of The '80s, the film became a huge flashpoint, probably the single most controversial film ever released by a major studio. Protesters picketed theaters, and several theater chains refused to carry it. Beyond the religious controversy, it was also hotly debated by critics, who disagreed on whether Scorsese made a misstep by taking on such an atypical project and whether his modernistic approach to a Biblical tale helped make it more relevant. As the controversy has subsided, it's gained positive re-evaluation as one of Scorsese's most daring films. Thomas R. Lindlof's book Hollywood Under Siege gives a full account of the making of the film, and the uproar it caused when it was released.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: Jesus is given this compared to the gospels. Though as Paul Schrader and Scorsese points out there is Unbuilt Trope most notably when Jesus wonders why had God forsaken him.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Judas gets this as per the revisionist accounts of 20th Century theology.
  • Alternative Character Interpretation: The story provides one to the Bible, in tandem with External RetCons.
  • Apologetic Attacker: Pontius Pilate doesn't regret Jesus' crucifixion but he does take pity on the man and his cause, which he sees as a Hopeless War.
  • Beat Still, My Heart: In a startling scene, Jesus tears his hand through his chest and pulls out his heart to his disciples, in a demonstration of his power and his newfound determination to take the temple of Jerusalem back.
  • Bible Times: A deconstruction, it shows the time to be really poor, with a lot of violence and a great many religious mystics, in addition to the Zealots.
  • Big Bad: Satan, represented here first as a snake, then a lion, later as the angelic little girl and finally a pillar of fire.
  • Break Them by Talking: The older, un-crucified Jesus confronts Paul over his preaching, and is shut down right quick:
    Paul: You see, you don't know how much people need God. You don't know how happy He can make them. He can make them happy to do anything. Make them happy to die, and they'll die, all for the sake of Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God. The Messiah. Not you. Not for your sake. [beat] You know, I'm glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you. My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful.
    • Then again, that speech occurs during the titular Last Temptation.
  • Classical Anti-Hero: Jesus being this in the movie is basically what's so controversial about it, in a nutshell.
  • Deconstruction: A highly intellectually driven look at not only the life of Jesus but the way's he's depicted in art and movies. And averting Christianity Is Catholic with its source novel written by a Greek Orthodox and co-screenwriter Paul Schrader being a Dutch Calvinist(with a PhD in theology), joining Scorsese as the Catholic.
    • One thing which Scorsese pointed out in interviews and the book Scorsese On Scorsese is that the Crucifixion has been Entertainingly Wrong all through history, with the nails driven through the palms which in fact would not have hinged the body on the cross. Scorsese cited the latest archaeological research as grounds to put the nails through Christ's wrists, just as the Romans did it.
    • The musical score by Peter Gabriel, a Genre-Busting effort that was an attempt to create music similar to what could have been played in Israel of that time, with some Anachronism Stew thrown in for good measure, generally taking Jesus from the European High Culture trappings of Classical religious music which developed centuries later and in a land and continent and culture far removed from First Century Israel.
    • Scorsese also deconstructs Jesus Was Way Cool, pointing out that if Jesus was so charismatic then there wouldn't have been such hatred or controversy provoked by him in the first place.note  He shows Jesus as a King of the Homeless attracting lepers, prostitutes and other outcasts who the establishment would regard as weirdos with Willem Dafoe's Jesus getting Adaptational Angst Upgrade rather than a Messianic Archetype we see. The movie also deconstructs Christian attitudes to sexuality, by foregrounding the conflict between "Fully Human and Fully Divine". Also The Last Temptation is the first work in Western Art to depict women with Jesus at The Last Supper.
    • The movie in general takes the opposite stand to the Hollywood Epic Movie giving Jesus a Film Noir narration, using a variety of American accents (because as pointed out in the quote below, they were no less realistic than the BBC or the old English of the King James Bible used in earlier adaptations) and in showing Jerusalem and the Bible Lands as the dirty, oppressed Wretched Hive that it was under Roman occupation and also suggested in the Bible itself, and showing the poor who gravitated to Jesus with as little glamour or affect as possible.
    • Biblical scholar Robert M. Price made the argument that the film deconstructs the apologetic argument known as the Lewis trilemma according to which Jesus was either a cynical con man, a complete madman or the messiah.
    The Last Temptation is certainly the most orthodox christian movie about Jesus ever made. [...] The Liar, Lord, or Lunatic argument that [christian apologists] use is, I think, deeply flawed because it implies Jesus wasn't a genuine human being because the idea that he was God - whether he was or not - would have driven him insane. Right? And that's exactly what happens in the the Last Temptation; no other movie ever took that seriously.
  • Decon-Recon Switch: Ultimately, as unusual as the film is as a dramatization of Jesus, the film is still highly respectful and as one reviewer noted, "the work of a believer". Scorsese said that the reason he made all these changes was because he wanted to take Jesus away from the pious and safe traditional iconography and make it relevant to a modern audience, since Jesus' ideas and messages are still radical and important to the world, and he wanted to place it in a more alien and unfamiliar context so that people would understand it fresh without the preconceptions and pomp and piety.
  • Devil in Disguise: The "angel" who appears to Jesus upon the cross.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Mary Magdalene usually wears decorated barefoot sandals. Also, the guardian angel is over things like footwear, in her case entering Barefoot Sage field.
  • Don't Make Me Destroy You: Pontius Pilate criticizes the Jewish rebels for resisting the Roman order and forcing harsh repression against the population. He tells Jesus that he considers pacifists like him to be just as bad. He tells Jesus that he will be crucified at Golgotha which has "3000 skulls" and tells him that he wishes he and other residents of Jerusalem counted those skulls before Romans have to add more to that tally.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Jesus rejects Satan's illusion, is immediately brought back to the cross, where he cries out "It is accomplished!" in utter triumph, having fulfilled his Father's plan.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: With the reveal that Satan's trying to persuade Jesus into giving up his role as the Messiah by promising him a normal life, it is quite probable that the whole movie right until the final scene at the crucifixion was indeed part of the titular Last Temptation.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Quite literally with a beautiful guardian angel who turns out to be a disguise of Satan.
  • The Film of the Book: No, not that book. It's actually an adaptation of a book by the same name.
  • Fiery Redhead: Judas very conspicuously has red hair here, and is portrayed as being quick to anger.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Jesus dies on the cross to save humanity from its sins and allow everyone in the world a chance to reach Heaven and see God. It's not like the story can really change the formula up. Until it does, by way of having Satan appear to tempt Jesus into giving up his destiny for a normal life. Double Subverted right at the end when Jesus declines the Last Temptation, choosing to "go back" and die on the cross.
  • Foreshadowing: The first scene in the movie is Jesus making a cross, carrying it, then watching someone get crucified.
  • Futureshadowing: Jesus' final temptation has glimpsing Saint Paul proselytizing Christianity and twisting his beliefs for personal ends. He also glimpses the sack of Jerusalem, the end of Jewish independence and the birth of the diaspora.
  • God Is Flawed: Played with. The point of the novel is to examine Christ as both entirely God and entirely Human. He is shown as being subjected to many of fears and temptations that humans have—and while he doesn't necessarily indulge in sin himself, his intrinsically paradoxical nature as the Messiah fills him with severe self-doubt, insecurity as to his worthiness, and suppressed anger towards those who merely plan to use him for their own purposes. Satan tempts him with Power, Authority and Rule which Jesus rejects, but the final temptation, and the hardest to resist, is Jesus being a normal man, married to the woman he loves and having children and a family. He ultimately rejects even this and becomes the Christ of The Bible, gladly accepting his Father's plan.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Jesus after the final temptation: "It is accomplished!"
  • Guardian Angel: During the last part of the story, Jesus is accompanied by an otherworldy girl who claims to be her guardian angel. However, she is actually Satan.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Jesus's guardian angel has the form of a gold-haired girl. Subverted when it is revealed that she is Satan in disguise trying to tempt Jesus.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Pontius Pilate tries to give this to Jesus, Satan gives it all the time, and even Saint Paul steps in.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Jesus and Judas are best friends and are practically inseparable. In this story, Jesus orders Judas to betray him to the Roman authorities, which Judas does not wish to do.
  • Hopeless War: How Pontius Pilate sees the Jewish Revolts, he chides Jesus and the zealots, seeing them both as part of the same coin, for forcing harsh Roman reprisals against their people.
  • It Sucks to Be the Chosen One: It really does. The woman you love and would have married becomes a prostitute and finally, God's plan doesn't involve you becoming the Icon of Rebellion to topple the Roman occupation. No, God's plan is for you to sacrifice yourself so that you can become an Inspirational Martyr that ensures your cause becomes truly immortal.
  • It's a Wonderful Plot: The final quarter of the film is Jesus seeing how the world would be if he was just a regular person. But a form of Christianity still survives, espoused by Paul. Another interesting twist is that in this reality Jesus gets to witness firsthand the siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 (the event that hastened early Christianity's break from Judaism). Universal Pictures president Tom Pollock greenlighted the film in part because he recognized the similarities to It's a Wonderful Life.
  • Jesus Was Crazy: The film begins with Jesus portrayed as a paranoid schizophrenic who starts preaching because he hears voices in his head. Jesus is first shown working as a carpenter building crosses for the Romans and rambling on about how he wants to crucify all the messiahs. The story goes through many plot-twists, and the psychiatric perspective grows obsolete after a while - but Jesus being crazy in one way or another remains the only constant throughout the movie. And trying to live a decent life turns out to be the craziest thing of them all.
  • Large Ham: Paul. Just listen to his rantings and try not to laugh.
  • "Last Supper" Steal: Meticulously averted. Everyone sits on the floor, the table is arranged in a square, and the female followers are in attendance as well.
  • Meta Casting:
    • Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene was appropriate, since she was the one who introduced Scorsese to the Kazantzakis novel in the first place.
    • Michael Been, who'd been an early figure in Christian Rock and whose later mainstream band The Call often had religious themes in their lyrics, as the apostle John.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: All of the actors, but Harvey Keitel got the most crap for it. This was a deliberate artistic decision by Scorsese who wanted to subvert the usual cliches of the Epic Movie.
    "I mean, basically, they say, okay, this is a defense, in a way. We don't have to get too emotionally involved because this happened a long time ago and people spoke funny. We said no, this man talks like you, talks like me, some guy has a Brooklyn accent, another guy has a Canadian accent... where does it say that everybody in ancient Judea spoke by listening to the BBC?"
    • Scorsese stated that at one point he even considered doing the film in Aramaic much like Mel Gibson did later but that he ultimately refused because he wanted his film to be seen by a general audience rather than academics and intellectuals. The other reason was that Aramaic was a dead language with all pronunciations lost to time and it wouldn't help the actors one bit.
  • Oh, Crap!: JESUS has one, when he resurrects Lazarus. Not even HE thought he'd be able to do it, and when he does, his quiet little "God Help Me" shows just how overwhelmed he is by his own power.
  • One Steve Limit: A notable aversion with the three different Marys in Jesus' life (his mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany—sister of Lazarus and Martha), which becomes symbolically important during the last temptation because all three women are associated with motherhood. Mary Magdalene becomes Jesus' wife and carries his child, only to die during pregnancy. The third Mary ends up giving birth to his offspring.note 
  • Our Angels Are Different: Because they aren't angels at all.
  • Passion Play: Subverted Trope. Just as Christ is put on the Cross, an angel rescues him and lets him live a life without the burden of being the Messiah. Jesus goes on to marry Mary Magdalene and lament the fact that people like Paul of Tarsus continue to use the story of his Passion as the center of a new religion. The Twist Ending plays with the trope further. The movie is a Double Subversion, because the angel Christ was the Devil wearing a disguise, who gave Christ a vision of what could be in order to tempt Christ not to fulfill his mission to save humanity from sin.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: A sprawling 500-page novel had to be tightened up considerably for its film version. One of the main talking points for the studio in the middle of the uproar in 1988 was that the film doesn't include some of the more provocative portions of the novel.
  • The Queen's Latin: Subverted, except for David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, but then he is Roman.
  • Refusal of the Call: Jesus all the time, as a result of the view that he was "fully human fully divine" and also to make him a Tragic Hero.
  • Shades of Conflict: Jesus and Satan are, respectively, purely good and purely evil; everyone else, including the Apostles, the Sanhedrin, and Pontius Pliate are various shades of gray.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The depiction of Satan as a shapeshifting little girl owes greatly to Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert and Federico Fellini's Toby Dammitt.
    • An oblique bit of Author Appeal from screenwriter Paul Schrader—the scene where Jesus pulls his heart out of his chest was partly meant to be a reference to the school seal of Schrader's alma mater, Calvin College.
  • Shown Their Work: The depiction of the culture of 1st Century Judea is very detailed and non-cliched.
  • Smash Cut: An unintentional example. During the final scene, right as Jesus finally dies on the cross, the film flickers out into a myriad of colors before cutting to the end credits. This was because the film reel cut out right as Willem Dafoe's eyes closed. Scorsese, finding it a magnificent way to end the film, decided to Throw It In!.
  • Stylistic Suck: The stilted and rambling preaching of Paul of Tarsus. According to historical accounts, Saul/Paul was very bad at public speaking, which is why he's most remembered for his letters. According to Paul Schrader, Harry Dean Stanton was modeling his performance on televangelists.
  • Truth in Television: For all the controversy surrounding the movie, one definite accurate aspect is that Dafoe's physical appearance as Jesus is actually far closer than the more traditional Western depiction. note  Though Scorsese notes that its still traditional in that Jesus is a still a blond white male when he was in fact a Middle Eastern Jew.
  • Tragic Hero: Jesus being human in body yet divine in spirit stresses him out immensely, as he not only has to come to terms that he is the Messiah, but he also ends up facing all the temptations, fears, and insecurities any human does. This drives people away from him, draws in people who are trying to exploit him, gets him pitied by the authorities, and ultimately costs him any chance for a normal and happy life as a regular human being. This is, however, hugely averted by the ending, where Jesus manages to fulfill his role as the redeemer of mankind wholeheartedly, proclaiming God's victory in utter triumph right before dying on the cross.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: The guardian angel is always by Jesus's side in his new, normal life, but although she is noticed by other characters and interacts with them, they never acknowledge the oddity in a girl who never grows nor ages through the years. It gets justified at the end when it's revealed that said life is an illusion created by her, who is Satan.
  • Voice of the Legion: Naturally, by Legion's boss, who gets to speak in quite a few voices throughout the film in addition to having this special effect.
  • Wham Line: A couple during the last temptation.
    Jesus: Who's getting married?
    Angel: You are.
    • And:
    Judas Iscariot: What angel? Look at her: Satan!
    Satan: I told you we would meet again.
  • Windmill Crusader:
    • Jesus is portrayed as the insane kind of Windmill Crusader. This is played straight for most of the movie; he even gets cured of his messiah complex and gets to live a normal life. In the Twist Ending, however, Judas accuses Jesus of betraying him by not going through with dying on the cross as they had previously agreed. Jesus’ guardian angel is then revealed to be the devil, who had tricked him into believing that he’s not the messiah. Thus, it turns out that it was No Mere Windmill after all.
    • In the same movie, Saul is briefly portrayed as the misguided kind of Windmill Crusader. However, he is quickly shown as a Straw Hypocrite who simply doesn’t care if the gospel he preaches is true or not. Of course, this Saul is part of the vision shown by the Devil as part of the titular temptation, so YMMV.